JERUSALEM – A group calling itself "The Free People of the Galilee" (search) claimed Wednesday that it abducted an Israeli-American woman and demanded that Israel release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about her fate.
The group, through a leaflet and a militant spokesman, said it kidnapped U.S.-born Dana Bennet (search), who was 18 at the time of her disappearance in the summer of 2003.
The leaflet, sent to The Associated Press, contained no proof that the group was involved in the kidnapping or knew anything about Bennet's whereabouts. The group is not previously known.
A top Arab militant, who demanded not to be identified, said in a telephone call that Bennet was abducted in 2003. He reiterated the demand made in the leaflet that Israel release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about her fate.
"We announce before all and before international-related institutions that we have abducted the guard Dana Bennet in the Galilee area in August 2003," the Arabic-language leaflet said.
"We demand the murderer (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon apologize to our people for all violations and crimes that were committed by the occupation army," the leaflet added. It said information about Bennet would be released only when the prisoners are freed.
A senior police investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel's various security branches were investigating the claims.
Police have still not determined the authenticity or origins of the leaflet, the investigator added. He said the leaflet was the first "indication" that Bennet was abducted by Arab militants.
In August 2003, Bennet had finished her shift as a waitress in the town of Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, and failed to arrive at her home.
Bennet's mother, Vicky, told Israeli media Wednesday that she had not received any information about her daughter's whereabouts or condition.
"It appears that there is really something to this report even though there is no proof yet," Bennet told Army Radio. "I am full of hope that, despite everything Dana is being held somewhere, is alive, and that I will get her ... back."
Bennet's disappearance was reported several days after the body of a missing soldier was found in the same area, and on the same day another soldier reported an attempt to kidnap him, raising the level of public anxiety.
Islamic militant groups have repeatedly threatened to kidnap Israeli soldiers or civilians. Wednesday's leaflet marked the first time a claim of responsibility and ransom demands were made in connection with Bennet's disappearance.
Police are also searching for Eliezer Zussia, a 19-year-old Jewish seminary student, who disappeared shortly after Bennet disappeared.
Three weeks ago, police renewed their investigation into the disappearance of Israelis who disappeared in northern Israel in the past decade, including Bennet and Israeli soldier Guy Hever, who disappeared in 1997 near the Israel-Syria frontier.
At a meeting Tuesday with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul (search), who delivered a message from Syria to Israel, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom outlined a list of conditions Israel has for renewing peace talks with Damascus. One of the demands was that Syria help Israel find out what happened to Hever.